Tuesday, February 14, 2012

My Favorite NARA record group

It might come as a surprise to most of you that my favorite National Archives Record Group is RG 217, Records of the Accounting Officers of the Department of the Treasury. Why would a military guy like me care about Treasury records?

Well first, I'm not really a military-only kind of guy anymore and one of the reasons is this record group. It seems that all the hidden away, hard to find things, in genealogy that touch on the federal government in some way also touch this record group.

I first came across this record group as a young genealogist, when I was the consummate collector of finding aids. I have probably the largest collection of NARA finding aids outside of the National Archives (unfortunately hidden away in boxes, so many boxes, except for the ones I use all the time) and I was always on the lookout for one that I did not have in my collection. I was such a pest about it that one day an archivist introduced me to The Archivist (John W. Carlin) and she stated that I had the largest collection of finding aids outside the Archives. He was not impressed and neither was I. If you are a lover of records you have to be a lover of finding aids. You know the kind of item you would want to fall asleep with at night. Actually most of them make great sleeping pills.

Well this finding aid had a problem. For some unknown reason his finding aid was published on microfiche. Obviously a government conspiracy to keep genealogists away from the records (just kidding). It made it very difficult to read the finding aid in bed, and although I own (somewhere) a microfiche reader I was not about to carry it on the MARC train into the Archives. It was problematic and their appeared to be only one solution. I had to transcribe the microfiche.

That is not as outlandish a concept for me as you might imagine. In 1994 I had transcribed and annotated and even indexed the Preliminary Inventory of the War Department Collection of Confederate Records, RG 109 because I found it difficult to use. One of those books that is always in reach that I will talk about at some other time.

So I began the task of transcribing the microfiche. In the process I met and talked on several occasions with archivist, William F. Sherman, the author of the microfiche finding aid which was also know as Inventory 14. An inventory is what the archives staff compiles when they are fairly confident that they have accounted for all the records in a record group and that it is unlikely that more is going to show up. Finding aids extant before that moment in time are "preliminary.". Inventory 14 was originally published in 1987 in microfiche with a hard-copy introduction and it is still available today. In 1997 I published my revised version with annotations and what I considered to be a better index. It is never far from my desk. Not sure which box the microfiche version is in.

It became clear to me, in 1995 or 1996, that lots of stuff was missing from this inventory and for me the hunt was afoot. It turns out that there are two kinds of things in the Archives, described and undescribed. Described usually means it has been looked at, we know what it is,  and this is what it is and there is this much of it. Undescribed usually means it has been looked at, we think we know what it is but we are not going to tell you yet but we will tell you how much of it there is. When it was all said and not quite done (when is it ever done) there were over 500 items that were undescribed and not in the inventory. My timing was excellent. The move from the Records Center at Suitland to Archives II in College Park, Maryland had uncovered Accounting Officer records not in the inventory and this resulted in a rather long list of undescribed materials. John Vandereedt, a since retired archivist, was very helpful in making me understand it all. He has had that pleasure more than once over the years.

I once researched around a person in the Archives and all he cared about was Civil War raincoat contracts. I told him one day about Undescribed Entry 313. Raincoat Contracts. 1 box.  I saw him once more after that. He said thanks and I never saw him again. There is an interesting entry (remember the undescribed only have titles, they don't have descriptions) in Entry 299. Lighthouse Letters, 1790-1835. 2 boxes. One day. And then one, Entry 303. Account Report of William Blount, Governor of Tennessee, ca. 1812 - 1856 (was he governor that long???). 1 box. Actually I had not noticed that one before, something else to look at.

Enough for today. Now that you know the history of it, we will talk of the great of it the next time.

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